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Phillip Johnson’s “two-platoon” strategy demonstrated on free will

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The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values Johnson meant that real Darwinists say what Darwinism entails (materialist atheism) and then Christian Darwinists rush in to announce that we can somehow harmonize it with Christianity by not taking seriously what Darwinists actually say. Explained in detail here. The analogy is to American football.

In The Moral Landscape, for example, new atheist and PhD neuroscientist Sam Harris tackles free will: In The Moral Landscape, for example, new atheist Sam Harris tackles free will:

Many scientists and philosophers realized log ago that free will could not be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world. Nevertheless, mny still deny this fact. … The problem is tat no account of causality leaves room for free will … Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-mement ignorance of specific prior causes. (Pp. 103-5)

Are we clear about this yet? If not, dozens of examples from other Darwinists are available. And then
Thank God for Evolution!: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World Meanwhile, Michael “Thank God for Evolution” Dowd offers,

As Paul R. Lawrence, emeritus chair of Harvard Business School, hypothesizes in his soon-to-be published book being Human the imperative of having to choose between multiple, independent drives is what gives birth to free will. An understanding of evolutionary brain science thus demonstrates, far more comepllingly than can any philosophical treatise of the past, that free wil is real – very real (p. 156).

Notice that Lawrence is a business expert, emeritus. Gullible people, whether Christians or vaguely “spiritual” may not stop to notice what this means: It means he has no credibility in the critical field of neuroscience, dominated by thinkers like Harris.

Interestingly, non-materialist neuroscientists do accept free will, but they tend to be sympathetic to or comfortable with design. One thinks of Mario Beauregard and Jeffrey Schwartz. So they’re with neither platoon; they’re with the banned.

Note: Dowd seems to consider himself a Christian. Not many creedal Christians would agree, but many these days are not creedal, so … .

16 Replies to “Phillip Johnson’s “two-platoon” strategy demonstrated on free will

  1. 1
    JDH says:

    Those who state they do not believe in free will are okay to do so as long as they realize it renders all science, all morality, all humanity moot.

    Those who write books that not only state their own belief in “no free will”, but advocate that readers ( who supposedly have no free will ) willingly change their current opinion to that of the author are fools. And it does not pay to read the words of, or argue with, fools.

  2. 2
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I’m a materialist neuroscientist and I accept free will 🙂

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    So they’re with neither platoon; they’re with the banned.
    What instrument(s) do they play?

    I’m a materialist neuroscientist and I accept free will

    Are you a mechanist materialist?

    It seems to me that “free will” is redudant. What does it mean to say that someone or some thing has a will if that will is not free?

  4. 4
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Mung – I entirely agree that “free will” is redundant (I’m always tempted to respond: “who is Will?”)

    Hence my smiley (I must ration my smileys on this board – it’s a bad habit I realise, now that I see them parsed as a manic grin!)

    What I should have said is that I regard people as having options, and that they choose those options with intent. In other words they have will (they can intend) and they are free (they can choose).

    Regarding your first question (apart from the instrument one – for myself, I play viola da gamba, how about you?): I confess I’m not very good at labels (don’t like them much) so I’m not quite sure what kind of “materialist” I am, although I’m not the kind that denies the existence of energy!

    I’d probably describe myself as a “naturalist” if that didn’t mean someone who collects butterflies. I think things have “natural” explanations. Perhaps that means I’m a “mechanist”. I certainly spend my life looking for mechanisms.

    Does that help?

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Regarding your first question (apart from the instrument one – for myself, I play viola da gamba, how about you?)

    Cornet/trumpet.

    What is a mechanist? Good question. Without delving into it too deeply and making an attempt at my own original thought, how about this:

    The mechanist philosophy is the idea that each event follows from a prior event by necessity.

    It probably also includes the idea that this has always been the case and always will be the case and that the history of the universe is an unbroken chain of such cause and effect relationships.

    Could a “will,” free or not, exist in such a universe?

  6. 6
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I love the cornet and trumpet! I used to play (badly) in a brass band, but never made it up as far as trumpet.

    On that definition, I’m not exactly a mechanist, because I don’t think it fits with what we know of quantum physics (not that I’m a physicist).

    But my approach to free will doesn’t actually depend on whether or not the universe is deterministic.

    Like you, I think it’s a redundant expression,and by parsing it the way I do, I think free will becomes compatible with a deterministic universe, in that the willing agents can be regarded as decision-making units within that universe.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Consider an asteroid passing between two bodies with enough mass to exert force upon the asteroid.

    Does the asteroid have a decision to make? Why not?

    What is a decision-making unit?

    What is it that makes for a “willing agent” in a mechanistic universe?

    Is it that they can make decisions?

    Is it that they can recognize that an alternative action can be taken?

    What does it mean for an agent “to act”?

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Excellent questions! I’m off to bed now, but I’ll try to do them justice in the morning.

    Thanks for the conversation!

    Cheers

    Lizzie

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    Short responses preferred 🙂

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    I’m a materialist neuroscientist and I accept free will

    More questions!

    Where does free will reside?

    Does that question even make sense to you?

    I believe that I am writing this post of my own free will. My fingers are tapping out the patterns on the keyboard. Do they have free will? Does my free will reside in my fingers?

    I just walked away a moment ago, and then walked back. I think I could have chosen not to do that. Do my feet also have free will?

  11. 11
    JDH says:

    I don’t understand how free will is compatible with materialism. In order to have a choice, I must do something that is neither a quantum fluctuation ( random event ) nor predetermined.

    As a matter of fact the only way to communicate intent is to do that which would not occur had I not acted.

  12. 12
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    OK, Mung, here’s my response to your questions. I don’t expect to be convincing, but I’ll have a go at trying to explain my stance here, and I’m afraid I’m going to struggle to be brief, but I will try. I’ve also taken the second set first, initially by accident, but it’s turned out fortuitous.

    Where does free will reside?
    Does that question even make sense to you?

    Yes, it makes a great deal of sense, but I would also critique it for the reasons you yourself articulated – it is something of a tautology. I’d rather phrase it as “am I free?” and if so “in what sense/why?”

    And your follow-up questions help:

    I believe that I am writing this post of my own free will. My fingers are tapping out the patterns on the keyboard. Do they have free will? Does my free will reside in my fingers?

    I just walked away a moment ago, and then walked back. I think I could have chosen not to do that. Do my feet also have free will?

    Interestingly, my husband was involved in a neuroimaging study many years ago in which they asked people in one condition to move the finger indicated by the experimenter, and, in another, to move any finger they wanted.
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/76606
    What they found was increased activation in the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex for willed (self-generated) acts (acts in which the participant had a choice) as opposed to acts in which the action was completely specified by the experimenter.

    However, I am certainly not going to conclude from that that dorolateral pre-frontal cortex is the seat of volition! In any case I think we have to be very careful in making inferences from very artificial tasks in which there really is no good reason to choose one action rather than another – and, interestingly, it’s something human beings find hard to do (asking people to generate “random” responses tends to produce sequences detectably different from sequences generated by, for instance, a random number generator).

    Furthermore, I think we have to be very careful about making inferences from studies like Libet’s (for several reasons, not least his methodology), in which it is assumed that an action is only “willed” if it is enacted after the time deemed to have been registered as a decision by the participant. For example, as a musician you will recognise my own experience of the results of hard musical practice – when you have really mastered you instrument, you can play – indeed improvise – far faster than anything Libet would register as a decision-making time-scale. I would argue that in those instances, the exercise of will long precedes the actual execution which you have, in fact, deliberately automated. More seriously, a “battle-hardened” soldier has, as a deliberate act of will, trained him/herself to shoot “without thinking” – because taking time to think may have catastrophic consequences. But that, to me, does not absolve the soldier for responsibility for his/her firing, but it does place the moral-decision making event well before the actual shooting.

    All of which has not answered your question 🙂 Though I hope it has raised some issues that I think we need to consider when addressing it, even from a “materialist” point of view (I may grow out of those scare-quotes, but I’m not ready to do so yet….)

    I would say that free will resides in the self, and it is through defining the self that we assign not just freedom, but moral responsibility. For example, if I murder someone in my sleep, I can plead that “I was not myself – I was asleep”. In other words, I define my self as something other than the thing I am when deeply asleep. However, if I murder someone when drunk, I could plead “I was not myself, I was drunk” – but by the same token I would be defining myself as something that ceased to exist when I was drunk. Worse, if I murdered myself because I was drunk and an alcoholic, I could plead “I was not myself, I am an alcoholic and I can’t help getting drunk, and when I’m drunk I tend to murder people”. In which case I am defining my self even more narrowly. As Dennett says, in Freedom Evolves (am I really quoting Dennett at UD? Somebody pinch me…): “if you make yourself really small you can externalize virtually anything”. As he also says (on the issue of “creeping exculpability”): the act of accepting moral responsibility is a “self-forming act” (SFA). So, morally, it’s a quid pro quo: we can decline moral responsibility, and deny our humanity, or we can accept it, and with it, define ourselves as the decision-making agents our complex brains enable us to be.

    So what does it mean to be a decision-maker? And why, to use your example,

    Consider an asteroid passing between two bodies with enough mass to exert force upon the asteroid.

    Does the asteroid have a decision to make? Why not?

    The asteroid’s “actions” are entirely determined by the gravitational geometry of the other two bodies. So, in natural language, we would be reluctant to use the word “decide” to describe what the asteroid does. I suggest (not an original suggestion) that the word “freedom” tends to be used when there is “freedom from immediacy” (a phrased coined by Shadlen, apparently, according to Patrick Haggard http://www.kognitywistyka.umk......rn2497.pdf), and that human freedom from immediacy (our capacity to weigh up not simply our immediate goals but more distant ones, including, as I suggested above, the likely results of our present decision on future actions we may find ourselves making) is derived largely from our extraordinary capacity for language – our capacity to reify the future in symbolic terms and factor it in to the decision-making process.

    What is a decision-making unit?

    I would say that a decision making unit is one in capable of a number of different actions, and possessing some sort of algorithm by which the action most likely to achieve some goal can be selected. I wouldn’t necessarily say that such a decision-maker was “free” however. (see above and below)

    What is it that makes for a “willing agent” in a mechanistic universe?

    The capacity to simulate the consequences of an action in the remote future, and to re-enter that simulated outcome as a factor in the current decision-making process; also to represent the agent itself as a decision-maker, comparable to other decision-makers in its environment that impact on it.

    Is it that they can make decisions?

    I’d say it had to be more than that – for a decision-maker to be a “willing agent” it has to represent itself as an agent with a will 🙂
    Not as circular as it sounds, however, although it does involve loops. But loops are perfectly implementable in “material” systems.

    Is it that they can recognize that an alternative action can be taken?

    Yes, I think so, but that of course opens a whole nuther can of worms (consciousness) – we can go there if you want, though 🙂

    What does it mean for an agent “to act”?

    Do something that impacts on something else, where the something that is done is the result of a decision (see above).
    I’ve probably failed to be either brief, or clear, although some of what I’ve said sort of references what I was getting at in vjtorley’s thread (which I seem to have lost, but will try to get back to), although I haven’t yet (here) addressed the moral component of decision-making, which, I would argue, involves yet more simulation of consequences, but also the capacity to turn them round and represent the consequences to another agent as though they were to it. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. I think there’s an algorithm for that, and I don’t think it makes it any less moral, or, indeed beautiful 🙂

    @ JDH, #11

    I don’t understand how free will is compatible with materialism. In order to have a choice, I must do something that is neither a quantum fluctuation ( random event ) nor predetermined.

    I do agree that quantum fluctuation doesn’t get anyone out of the free will hole (I used to think it did, but Dennett disposes of that argument very neatly). The trick lies, I suggest (and again,this is not original, it derives from Dennett in “Freedom Evolves”) in specifying what is supposed to be “free”. As Mung says “free will” is a redundant term. What we really mean, I suggest is “am I free?” And that depends on what I regard as “I”.
    In other words, the universe may well turn out to have no “freedom” at all (it may run like clockwork, over and over again, always with the same consequences, just as a stochastic computer program will produce the same output every time, as long as you reset the random number seed). But that doesn’t mean that individual units within it can’t be viewed as agents with options – if I simulate (as I often do) a learning algorithm that “tries” to, for example, discriminate between two brain states (supplied as brain images), it is perfectly reasonable for me to regard the algorithm as “choosing” which brain is most likely to be which, even though it will give me exactly the same answer, and go through exactly the same computations if I re-run it with the same random-number seed. If I change the random-number seed, of course, it may give me a different answer, or it may come to the same answer, but by a different route. The system is entirely deterministic, but it is a) stochastic and b), I would argue, “intelligent”. And if I give it a different set of brain images to distinguish between (typically we “train” the algorithm on one dataset, and then “test” it on another) then again, although the answer may be “deterministic” given the initial state of the system, it seems reasonable to regard the algorithm as a “chooser” – free to select the category in which it places each brain image, according to the probability, given the data, that that category is correct.

    As a matter of fact the only way to communicate intent is to do that which would not occur had I not acted.

    Heh. Too much thinking about free will messes with your head 🙂 (Well, it does with mine….)

  13. 13
    nullasalus says:

    Regarding Dennett, a comment.

    From Dennett’s intentionality paper comes this brief, concluding quote, which impacts the discussion in an important way:

    I can, however, give a summary expression of the main positive point of my theory: the intentionality of our mental states and processes is derived in just the same way as that of our books and maps (and the inner states of our robots). Suppose you have composed a shopping list, on a piece of paper, to guide your shopping behavior. The marks on the piece of paper have derived intentionality, of course, but if you forgo the shopping list and just remember the wanted items in your head, whatever it is that “stores” or “represents” the items to be purchased in your brain has exactly the same status as the trails of ink on the paper.

    Dennett explicitly denies original intentionality, and treats all intentionality and meaning as derived, whether in a brain or a mind or a book or a computer. Hence the maps and books and shopping list example: If you write down ‘eggs, milk, cheese, salt’, is it a shopping list? Some kind of recipe? Code? Nonsense? Well, it’s any of those answers. Or multiple. Or none. There’s no ‘fact of the matter’ what the list is about, or even if it’s a list, or even if the words are in english, or even if there are words on the paper. It’s only relative to a brain that there’s any “meaning” on the list.

    Except the brain is subject to the exact same kind of ‘meaning’ as the list, according to Dennett. The only kind of meaning you’ll find in the brain is the same kind you find in the list – assigned meaning. There’s no fact-of-the-matter about what the brain (or the person with the brain) ‘meant’ anymore than there is a fact-of-the-matter about what the list ‘meant’ (or, again, if it’s even a list.) And that includes whether there are programs, encoding, algorithms, simulations, etc present. And since the mind is, by Dennett, nothing but the brain or what the brain ‘does’, there’s no fact of the matter of what any person is thinking about (including a person reading these words. Well, let’s put “words” in quotation marks. “reading” too. And “person”, while we’re at it. Well, “we’re” at it.)

    So it’s worth keeping all this in mind (ha ha) when discussing brains, algorithms, simulations, etc, at least with regards to Dennett’s view of these things.

  14. 14
    johnnyb says:

    Elizabeth –

    Your position is remarkably similar to Nancey Murphy’s “nonreductive physicalism”. Are you familiar with this and would you agree with the characterization?

    I might do a longer post on this later, but I did my master’s work in theology criticizing that position, showing -a- there are features of human action which are mathematically incompatible with physicalism, -b- nonreductive physicalism solves the problem of morality but not immorality, and -c- physicalism isn’t big enough to cover the hard questions of consciousness. You can read my paper here if you are interested.

    Also, with -c-, Marilyn Robinson has since come out with an excellent book covering the thesis in-depth.

  15. 15
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Thanks for the links, johnnyb, I’ve downloaded your paper.

    No, I’m afraid I don’t know about Nancey Murphy, but I’ll try to check it out.

  16. 16
    johnnyb says:

    Elizabeth –

    Probably her most comprehensive work on the subject is Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

    Feel free to email me if you find something work discussing in the paper:

    jonathan.bartlett@blythinstitute.org

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