I’d like to introduce my readers to two women of formidable intelligence who share a common first name. On the left is the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), as she appeared in her younger days. Anscombe, a famously forthright philosopher who translated Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations from German into English, is best known for her highly original monograph, Intention (1957) and for her 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy. On the right is our very own Elizabeth Liddle, who lectures in Translational Mental Health in the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Dr. Liddle is particularly interested in ADHD and schizophrenia, as well as neuroimaging. She has described herself as “a catholic turned atheist, an ex-professional musician turned cognitive neuroscientist and computational modeller of evolutionary learning algorithms.” She attributes her atheism to “a radical shift in stance over the nature of free will.” She has stated that reading Professor Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves in 2007 literally changed her life: “I changed from dualist to monist half-way through the book.”
The topic I’d like to discuss in this post is whether free will and physical determinism are compatible.
Elizabeth Anscombe’s argument for incompatibilism
Elizabeth Anscombe argued that physical determinism and freedom were incompatible, in her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971, entitled Causality and Determination. The following passage expresses her point with brevity and lucidity:
Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom. (p.26)
For Anscombe, indeterminism was a necessary but not sufficient condition for free will: freedom involves the power of acting according to an idea, and mere indeterminacy is incapable of endowing us with this power. Anscombe’s account of free will in her Inaugural Lecture made no attempt to be complete: it left unspecified the precise manner in which human agency meshes with quantum indeterminacy. I attempted to provide a solution to this question in my recent posts, How is libertarian free will possible? and Why I think the interaction problem is real. The purpose of today’s post, however, is to get to the bottom of a long-running dispute between compatibilists, who think that we can still have free will even if our actions are fully determined at a physical level, and libertarians, who believe that we cannot.
I should add, too, that despite periodic claims that the experiments of Benjamin Libet have discredited the notion of freedom, Libet himself took a different view. Indeed, the neuroscience of free will remains very much up in the air, as this recent overview illustrates. There are eminent neurologists who espouse some form of dualism. Given our current lack of knowledge about the brain, accepting monism would be a rush to judgement, to say the least.
Dr. Liddle’s defense of compatibilism
Dr. Elizabeth Liddle, unlike the late Elizabeth Anscombe, is a convinced compatibilist. For her, the locus of freedom resides in agents rather than actions, and I am certain that Anscombe would have agreed with her on this point. Dr. Liddle then argues that on a very plausible definition of freedom, an agent can still be free even if her actions are fully determined:
[I]f we are discussing whether an agent is free, then all you have to do is define the agent, then say whether that agent makes choices and is able to act on them. And if the agent makes choices and is able to act on them, then the agent is free.
I can make choices, and I am able to act on them, therefore I am free.
To maintain otherwise is to say that I am not an agent at all.
Dr. Liddle has not defined the critical term “choice” in the foregoing passage. Elsewhere, however, she defines a decision (which, I take it, is the same as what she means by a choice) as a situation “where the brain processes the available data and then produces some type of behaviour” and describes the processes that her brain undergoes when making a decision:
[M]y brain cycles through the behavioural options, at sub-execution threshold , it simulates the outcomes of each option (what we think of as “imagining the consequences”, and the desirability of each outcome (signalled by the degree to which our reward circuits are activated) feeds back into the motor-program until a winning program reaches execution threshold and we do that (what we describe to ourselves as “acting on our decision”).
Dr. Liddle goes on to explain that when she makes a moral decision, her brain is performing the same processes, the principal difference being that her brain is now simulating how the other people with whom she is interacting would feel if she were to act in a certain way. She adds:
…I regard my freedom as the freedom that the thing I call “I” possesses in virtue of being a highly evolved decision-maker. I am free to choose, not just randomly … but after taking account of the pros and cons, short and long-term. The fact that we can account (at least I don’t see why we can’t) for that account-taking in physical terms doesn’t make my freedom any less, it just incorporates (literally) as the decision-making thing.
When I pressed Dr. Liddle for details, and asked her how intentions are coded in the brain, she answered that in her view, they are coded as a “repertoire of weighted models of options (although that probably suggests something far simpler than I have in mind, which is a highly nested and contingent set of options).”These intentions have a meaning of their own, but that meaning “is not inherent in a given neural state, it’s inherent in the programs of optional action … in my brain, which includes highly attenuated action programs that give rise to my sense of myself as an intender” to whom incoming stimuli (such as the sound of an alarm clock going off) have a meaning. More specifically, “I would say that I make meaning when I interpret a signal as having implications for some future action.” For instance: “My laptop can tell me that its battery is low, and I understand its meaning, and I can tell my laptop to shut down, and it understands mine.” In a nutshell: “Our motor programs have no ‘intrinsic meaning’. What has meaning is their relationship to their inputs.” Dr. Liddle continues:
I would say my freedom resides in the sheer number of options, and possible outcomes that I am capable, by virtue of my sophisticated human, symbol-using brain, of putting into the melting pot before initiating an actual course of action. What makes us so much freer than other animals, and even from other primates like chimps, is what is sometimes called our “freedom from immediacy”, conferred, I suggest, largely by our extraordinary capacity for language, and the tools it provides us with for simulating distal goals, and recalling outcomes from previous actions. Most importantly, we agree, I think, that neither a chimp nor a small child has much “Theory of Mind capacity” – cannot easily imagine – simulate – the consequences of their action from the point of view (literally) of another being. But I also suggest, following Dennett, that moral responsibility is coterminous with the act of defining the self; as Dennett repeats throughout Freedom Evolves: “if you make yourself really small, you can externalise virtually anything”. By the same token, he argues, it is by accepting moral responsibility for our actions that we define ourselves. And this is relevant to the chimp question – we don’t jail chimps in part because we don’t accord them a full human self. With adult human beings we mostly do, which is why we sometimes jail them when they fail to accept their human moral responsibilities. Sometimes we don’t, in which case we say they are “not fully responsible”, and, by the same token, we make them a little smaller – we say they are damaged, ill, crazy, not fully in control of their own actions. In other words, we draw the boundaries of their selves rather tightly, and regard much of what their brains do as “not them”.
I regard myself as free, even if the universe proves after all to be deterministic, not because there could be an alternative universe in which I could have done something different, but because I identify the thing I call “I” with the decision-making machinery that is my brain (together with all the things that make it what it is, including my own past decisions). In other words, I am free because I accept moral responsibility, not morally responsible because I’m free:)
In a comment on another thread, Dr. Liddle develops Professor Daniel Dennett’s argument that freedom arises from our decision to take responsibility for our actions:
And, to paraphrase Dennett … the more responsibility I accept for my actions, the larger I make myself – the act of taking moral responsibility is, literally, a “self-forming act”. And, conversely, if we minimise our responsibility, if we blame our genes, our brains, our upbringing, our life for our actions, then, while we let ourselves off the hook, we also define ourselves out of existence.
Here’s another way Dennett puts it:
…[B]y defining ourselves as the agent morally responsible for our actions we bring ourselves into being. We “ensoul ourselves” as you might say:)
Dr. Liddle then goes on to discuss the case of a mentally ill woman, who suffer from hearing voices in her head, and who goes on to commit a terrible crime under the influences of those voices. Such a woman could easily deny responsibility for her actions, saying that the voices made her do it; or alternatively, the same woman could take responsibility for her actions, by saying that she could have resisted the voices in her head, since she knew that they were wrong. Dr. Liddle comments:
It is not that one woman is right and the other wrong. That the first rightly or wrongly takes a Hard Indeterminist view of Free Will and the second, rightly or wrongly takes a Compatibilist view. It’s that in taking the view each adopts, each, by that same token, adopts a different definition of her self.
In other words, it is not that free will is true or false, but that the answer depends entirely on how we define the thing that is alleged to be (or not) free: “I”.
And that itself is a matter of choice.
And so, by saying “I am free” I become so, whether or not determinism is true. And by becoming so, I am accepting moral responsibility. It’s something, as Dennett says, that only human beings appear to have the capacity to do, and it’s what makes us human.
For Dr. Liddle, our consciousness naturally arises from the interactions between the various parts of the brain, but it is not a property of any particular part. Thus she considers herself to be an emergentist non-reductionist. She also dislikes the “materialist” tag – for her, it is the patterns and information within the brain, rather than the material in which they are realized, that generate our consciousness, so I shall refer to her as a monist.
My own comments on Dr. Liddle’s defense of compatibilism
I hope I have done justice to Dr. Liddle’s view of the self as a free but determined agent in the foregoing exposition. I’d now like to make a few comments of my own.
1. Preliminary remarks
1. On the positive side, I would like to thank Dr. Liddle for the many long hours that she has spent explaining and defending her views on Uncommon Descent. She is a very sincere individual, who has made a genuine effort to achieve a meeting of minds, and I am extremely grateful for her long-suffering patience.
I would also like to add that Dr. Liddle’s account of human action does provide some sort of explanation of how my actions can genuinely be said to be mine (agency), as well as how agency can make a genuine difference in the world, by deflecting the course of events. The example that Professor Daniel Dennett gives in his book, Freedom Evolves, is that of turning your head to dodge an approaching ball, which I’ll discuss below.
2. What’s missing from Dr. Liddle’s account: could we have done otherwise?
Professor Jerry Coyne, who is (like myself) an incompatibilist, but who is also (like Dennett but unlike myself) a determinist, makes the following astute observations on Dennett’s example of averting danger by dodging a ball in his essay Did freedom evolve?:
He uses, for instance, the act of turning your head to avoid being beaned by a baseball. That behavior is an evolved one: like many things we do, it enables us to survive. Those individuals who didn’t react to and avoid oncoming objects didn’t leave their genes behind! We are always making “decisions,” like whether to turn our head, where to find food, whom to mate with, that were built into our genes by natural selection. In those decisions resides our freedom.
It’s a bit more complicated than this, because Dennett sees free will as something largely limited to humans…. We make long-range plans not just for ourselves, but for our society. And Dennett also sees this complex behavior as a production of evolution. Because we have so many choices to make, and because they’re so complicated, this gives us a kind of “freedom” unprecedented among beasts.
This is the way Dennett reconciles deterministic causation with “will” and “free will.” At bottom, things are still physically determined. There’s just a new layer of complexity, one added by biology and evolution….
We turn our head because our evolved eyes perceive that something is approaching fast, and our evolved neurons, interacting with our evolved brain, make us swivel our skull to avoid collision. But it’s still all physics and molecules; in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head. It just looks (and feels) that way. Natural selection and evolution, of course, were themselves determined….
I see free will as the way most of us conceive of it: a situation in which one could have made more than one choice. If that’s how you see it, and you’re a determinist — which I think you pretty much have to be if you accept science — then you’re doomed. You’re left with the task of defining free will is some other way that comports with determinism.
But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise?
Precisely. More generally, if external circumstances which are beyond my control (e.g. my genes, my environment, or my evolutionary history) are what ultimately determine the specific motor pattern which I will select on any given occasion, from among the vast repertoire of patterns residing in my brain, then there is no way that this selection can be described as a genuine choice. And that is why on a determinist account of agency, bodily movements cannot legitimately be described as choices. Selections, yes; but choices, no. Or as Elizabeth Anscombe put it in the passage I quoted earlier:
My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory.
The problem with Dr. Liddle’s account is that it omits a vital ingredient of freedom: a situation in which one could have chosen otherwise. If determinism is true, then it is never true that we could have chosen otherwise.
Professor Dennett (and Dr. Liddle) might argue that there are some cases where it is plausible to say that we could have done otherwise: for instance, in the case of mistakes that we’ve previously been taught to avoid. Consider the example of a child who has been taught previously about dangerous objects (“Don’t touch that hot plate!”) but who has (through lack of attention) forgotten her mother’s lesson. Later on, that child suffers the consequences of her lack of attention, and burns her fingers on the hot plate. It might seem that in this case, the child could have done otherwise, IF she had been more attentive. But this example does not help at all. For the failure was itself predetermined: it was the product of an insufficiently powerful stimulus, which was not strong enough to bring about a permanent change in the child’s behavior. Perhaps one leson about hot objects was not enough for the child, but two or three lessons would have been.
Some determinists (I’m not accusing Dr. Liddle here) attempt to argue that “I could have done otherwise” really means “I would have done otherwise if the circumstances had been (slightly) different.” No, it doesn’t. It means that I might have done otherwise, even if the circumstances had been exactly the same. It was up to me. There were two (or more) ways that I could have gone. I chose one of these. That is what “I could have done otherwise” means, in ordinary parlance. Redefining terms in ordinary language to suit your view of reality is disingenuous. If you are going to implement a philosophical revolution, be bold about it: throw out the old, and bring in the new. And if you’re going to be a determinist, be a noisy, full-throated one!
3. Attitude changes are not the same as motor pattern changes
Dr. Liddle talks about two kinds of choices in her account of action: the choice of a motor pattern from a repertoire (e.g. when catching a ball) and the choice of how we define ourselves (particularly in terms of which actions of ours we choose to take responsibility for). It seems to me that the latter kind of choice is utterly different from the former. For the latter choice is attitudinal, whereas the former is kinesthetic. And that gets to the heart of the matter. In our everyday lives, we do not just “make moves.” Life is not a perpetual game of baseball, or cricket. We don’t just act; we also reflect. We mull over things. And we don’t just mull over future courses of action (e.g. how shall I throw that ball tomorrow, so that I can get Jones out?); we think about agents, including ourselves.
The act of thinking about myself and about who I am and what I shall take responsible for is not the same as the act of selecting a motor pattern. It’s a categorically different kind of act. It is entirely internal; it cannot be “cashed out” in terms of bodily movements. To be sure, after having adopted a certain metaphysical view of the limits of my freedom (or as Professor Dennett would say, my selfhood), I might move in different ways than I did before. My motor patterns will probably be quite different. For example, if I decide to take personal responsibility henceforth for colliding with people while I am running down the street, I will run more slowly from now on, or perhaps even walk. However – and this is my point – the mental act of adopting a new view of myself and the limits of my responsibility is quite distinct from the subsequent dispositions (or motor patterns) that I will gradually acquire of moving more carefully, when I am going down the street. The mental act of changing my attitudes logically and temporally precedes the change in my motor patterns. To be sure, there may be some feedback, as my new motor patterns reinforce my change of attitude (“Hey, no collisions! No embarrassing situations! This is wonderful!”). However, something has to come first, and in this case, it’s an attitudinal change.
Dr. Liddle dislikes the term “materialist”; but she would surely agree that attitudes towards oneself and others correspond to patterns in the brain. If she does not believe that, then she really is a dualist, after all:) Now, I would acknowledge that Dr. Liddle has given us a fairly plausible account of how motor patterns in the brain can possess a kind of meaning, in relation to their inputs and outputs. But I have to say that I find her account utterly implausible, when it attempts to explain how a pattern in my brain can “mean” my old school-friend, whom I haven’t seen in years. For even if the pattern were caused by my school-friend, a pattern’s being caused by X is conceptually quite distinct from a pattern’s meaning X. And we have to ask: caused in what way? Are wayward causal chains meaningful as well? I find that Dr. Liddle’s monism (I shall use that term, as she dislikes being called a materialist) breaks down here.
Dr. Liddle has argued previously for a natural theory of meaning, along the lines of “Black clouds mean rain”, but as I argued here, this won’t work:
“Natural meaning” is, it seems, a derived rather than a primitive usage of the term “meaning”: it assumes the existence of a community of observers who possess a stock of shared scientific knowledge. [In the foregoing example, the shared knowledge is meteorological – VJT.]
Let’s return to the causes of my attitudinal changes. Now, the question arises: are these attitudinal changes determined? On Dr. Liddle’s view, the answer is: yes. When I give myself a “pep talk”, or scold myself for a thoughtless deed that I have just performed, and resolve to do better in future, I am consciously trying to redefine myself. Maybe I’ll succeed, or maybe I won’t: I might relapse to my bad old ways. Some people in my situation might not even bother trying to change themselves. But the point is that the attitudes that we adopt throughout our lives are themselves, in Dr. Liddle’s view, the product of circumstances beyond our control, and when we do adopt them, we could not have done otherwise. How, then, can Dr. Liddle coherently claim that in adopting a new attitude towards myself – e.g. in deciding to take responsibility for my actions instead of blaming others – I thereby become a free agent? The very decision that I made to change my life and redefine the boundaries of my self, is itself a product of circumstances over which I had no control. Why, then, should I be praised or blamed for it?
4. Crime and punishment
The topic of praise and blame brings us to Professor Dennett’s rationale for punishing criminals and holding adults responsible for their behavior. Professor Jerry Coyne, in his essay, Did freedom evolve?, argues that Dennett’s reasoning on crime and punishment is disingenuous, because instead of facing up to the facts, Dennett constructs an argument achieve his objective of a properly functioning society, which he so desperately desires:
But if our “choices” are still really determined, how can we have moral responsibility? This is a bit tricker. As far as I understand it, Dennett’s solution is that we must be morally responsible if we’re to be allowed to take our place in society, and to enjoy all its benefits. Our understanding of this contract is our tacit admission that we’re morally responsible beings. If we don’t acquiesce, and don’t accept our punishment when we err, then we have no business enjoying the largesse of society.
That’s Dennett’s argument, and he presents it with clarity and panache… But in the end I wasn’t satisfied. Even though evolution tells us why we make certain “choices,” they still are not choices in the classical free-will sense: situations in which we could have decided otherwise.…
In the end, I saw the argument as a type of philosophical prestidigitation, in which our intuitive notion of free will had suddenly been replaced by something that, at first, sounded good, but ultimately didn’t comport with how we see “free” choice. I felt as though I’d been presented with a cake, only to find that it was hollow in the middle, like a hatbox covered with frosting. And the argument for moral responsibility seems contrived, as if innate responsibility were replaced by something else: a social contract…
It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility. But this is hardly scientific: we decide what conclusion we want to reach a priori, and then twist the facts, and our arguments, so they lead to that result. Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?
Professor Dennett would have been more consistent if he had admitted that we’re not free, but then gone on to argue that punishing a few people for things they can’t help doing is the only way to prevent a slide into social anarchy. Or as Mao Zedong memorably put it: “Execute one, educate a thousand.”
5. What do you mean? Why did you do that? You mean to say you don’t know?
The final problem I have with Professor Dennett’s views on freedom is that unlike the philosopher John Searle, who distinguishes between the intrinsic intentionality possessed by conscious agents such as humans and other animals who have beliefs and desires, and the derived intentionality of words, sentences, pictures, diagrams and graphs, whose meaning depends on what other people (language users) think, Dennett regards all intentionality as derived, and denies the existence of original (or intrinsic) intentionality altogether. As he puts it in a celebrated example:
Suppose some human being, Jones, looks out the window and thereupon goes into the state of thinking he sees a horse (cf. Fodor 1987). There may or may not be a horse out there for him to see, but the fact that he is in the mental state of thinking he sees a horse is not just a matter of interpretation (these others say). Suppose the planet Twin-Earth were just like Earth, save for having schmorses where we have horses. (Schmorses look for all the world like horses, and are well-nigh indistinguishable from horses by all but trained biologists with special apparatus, but they aren’t horses, any more than dolphins are fish.) If we whisk Jones off to Twin-Earth, land of the the schmorses, and confront him in the relevant way with a schmorse, then either he really is, still, provoked into the state of believing he sees a horse (a mistaken, non-veridical belief) or he is provoked by that schmorse into believing, for the first time (and veridically), that he is seeing a schmorse. (For the sake of the example, let us suppose that Twin-Earthians call schmorses horses (chevaux, Pferde, etc.) so that what Jones or a native Twin- Earthian says to himself–or others–counts for nothing.) However hard it may be to determine exactly which state he is in, he is really in one or the other (or perhaps he really is in neither, so violently have we assaulted his cognitive system). Anyone who finds this intuition irresistible believes in original intentionality, and has some distinguished company: Fodor, Searle, Dretske, Burge, and Kripke, but also Chisholm 1956, 1957, Nagel 1979, 1986 and Popper and Eccles 1977). Anyone who finds this intuition dubious if not downright dismissible can join me, the Churchlands, Davidson, Haugeland, Millikan, Rorty, Stalnaker, and our distinguished predecessors, Quine and Sellars, in the other corner (along with Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky and almost everyone else in AI).
So in some cases, at least, there is no objective “fact of the matter” about what I really believe.
For Dennett the distinction between intrinsic and derived intentionality is redundant, because the brain is itself an artifact of natural selection, and the “aboutness” of our brain states (read: mental states) has already been determined by their “creator, Mother Nature”, who “designed” them (1997, Kinds of Minds, London: Phoenix, Paperback edition, p. 70). On Dennett’s account, then, actions performed for a clearcut natural end have an objective meaning, and we can legitimately speak of the beliefs and desires motivating those actions: they are the beliefs and desires that Mother Nature programmed into us. But in other situations, our actions do not carry any such meaning. When John buys Mary flowers and champagne for a dinner date, his actions mean something very natural; when he sends her flowers via Interflora from halfway round the world, poor Mary has to interpret his meaning – and there is no objective fact – not even John’s response to her question, “Why did you send me flowers?” – that could determine whether her interpretation is correct. Is he expressing his love for her, or is he just trying to cheer her up, or is he covering up his guilt over the fact that he hasn’t sent her any flowers in a long while, or is he merely acting on a whim? Asking John why he sent the flowers would only make sense if his beliefs and desires towards Mary possessed intrinsic intentionality in their own right, but on Dennett’s account they do not. I have to ask my readers: who does not find this account odd?
Dennett is also famous for claiming (Do Animals Have Beliefs?, in Roitblat, H., ed., Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, 1995) that since the shape of the bimetallic spring in a thermostat embodies information about room temperature, a thermostat qualifies as a minimal belief-holder. Dennett construes “beliefs” in a “maximally permissive” sense as “information-structures” that are “sufficient to permit the sort of intelligent choice of behavior that is well-predicted from the intentional stance”.
By now, it should be clear what is wrong with Dennett’s account of claiming one’s actions as one’s own, and thereby enlarging the scope of oneself and one’s freedom. For on Dennett’s own account of intentionality, there is no objective fact of the matter regarding whether John (who has until now led the life of an irresponsible scoundrel) really believes that he has wronged other people (fellow agents), and really desires to make their lives better henceforth. We might ascribe the dramatic change in his behavior to a sudden change of heart on his part; but a cynic might say that John’s altered behavior merely reflects a newfound desire to achieve respectability among his peers by adhering to social norms. Perhaps he simply realizes that his partying days are over. But the most peculiar thing of all is that on Dennett’s account of intentionality, not even John knows why he changed his lifestyle so dramatically. And thus not even John knows whether he is a free agent, even in Dennett’s funny sense of “free”. Now that is bizarre.
6. Why a mechanical view of the self is a debasing one
If someone were to ask me what the best single idea anyone ever had was, I’d say: the idea that the world and everything in it – including ourselves – is the work of a wise, loving and personal Being, who wants us to love one another, and one day share eternity with Him. If we have that vision of who we are, where we’re from and where we’re going, it lends dignity to our lives. It’s an ennobling belief: we know what we’re here for.
There are many good atheists who believe that we should love one another, despite their lack of faith in a hereafter. I salute them for “soldiering on”. But there’s one crazy idea that some atheists have, which, if they took it seriously, would make it impossible for them to soldier on. I’m referring here to the absurd idea that your every thought, word and deed has been determined in advance, by circumstances over which you had no control, so that you could never have done anything other than what you did. I would like to nominate this as the worst single idea that anyone has ever had, in history. You cannot simultaneously keep it in your mind and lead a normal life. Even Professor Coyne can’t – he admits that you can go crazy thinking about it.
What’s more important, though, is that in the long term, the idea of physical determinism – which even some religious people now defend – is spiritually destructive in the long term. As Professor William Dembski put it in a memorable 1991 essay entitled, Conflating Matter and Mind:
One God in particular I have no desire to spend eternity with is the God of the semi-materialists (cf. CMIM, pp. 215-219). Let us recall Donald MacKay’s recommendation to all good semi-materialists that they “not hunt for gaps in the scientific picture into which entities like ‘the soul’ might fit.” For the purposes of this discussion, semi-materialists are those Christians who hold that mind supervenes on brain. Why is this bad? If God decides to create us as physical systems whose consciousness and intelligence flow strictly from the constitution and dynamics of those physical systems, what’s wrong with that? Is our value diminished because semi-materialism deprives us of a spirit or soul (spirit and soul being conceived as aspects of our person whose ontology transcends the physical organism)?
To this last question I answer, Yes. Nevertheless, by diminished value I’m referring primarily to my own, personal valuations, not necessarily to God’s. I know my mind and I know what I value. I frankly know very little of God’s mind, and I’m loath to attribute valuations to God except in cases where the valuations I attribute to God are crucial to my valuation of God himself. If humans are no more than carbon-based machines (and here by machines I include any physical system of arbitrary complexity), if God loves and values such machines, if Christ died for such machines, so much the worse for God – I’ll look for another religion. I cannot worship any old God and I cannot worship God while maintaining a warped view of myself. A great God can properly be worshipped only by a great creature. Machines are wholly inadequate for the task. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Strong words indeed, but very true ones. There are some beliefs that endanger one’s sanity, and which sensible people should shun. The idea that we are nothing but glorified machines is surely one of them.