Friday, October 12, 2007

The Problem of Free Will and John West

A few weeks ago, I posted a statement on John West's new book--Darwin Day in America. I indicated that I thought the book was a good survey of the bad effects of a crude scientific materialism in some areas of American public policy. But I also explained why West's attempt to trace this crude scientific materialism back to Darwin was implausible. I wrote a blurb for the publisher (ISI Books) praising the book, while also indicating my disagreement with West's attack on Darwinian science. Now, the Discovery Institute has set up a website for the book, which quotes my blurb. People who know about my continuing debate with West (on this blog and elsewhere) have questioned me as to why I wrote the blurb. My answer is laid out in my post of September 16th.

West's new book is designed to carry out the original "wedge strategy" of the Discovery Institute. A copy of the "wedge document" can be found here. As Barbara Forest and Paul Gross show in their book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, this document was prepared in 1998 as a secret plan for the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. West was one of the original founders of the Center, and he is now the Associate Director. As the wedge document indicates, the Center was established to lead a public relations strategy that would transform modern culture by defeating scientific materialism and reviving the traditional religious conception of human beings as created in God's image. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud were identified as the major sources of the scientific materialism that would have to be defeated. But Darwin has become the primary enemy for those following the wedge strategy.

West's Darwin Day in America carries out that strategy by claiming that all of the bad consequences of scientific materialism come from Charles Darwin. What's good about West's book is his broad survey of the deleterious effects of scientific materialism on American public policy. But what's bad about the book is his ridiculously contrived efforts at connecting all of this to Darwin.

Consider, for example, Chapter 3 of the book--"Criminal Science." The chapter opens with Clarence Darrow's famous argument that to hold Leopold and Loeb fully responsible for their murder would be unscientific in denying the scientific knowledge that all human behavior is determined by heredity and environment. West then shows how such shallow reasoning corrupted much of the putatively scientific criminology of the twentieth century.

But where's the connection to Darwin? Well, West establishes the connection with one sentence: "In his notebooks, Charles Darwin struggled with the serious consequences that scientific materialism posed for free will and responsibility, but for the most part he chose to keep his misgivings to himself." That's it! That one sentence is all that West ever says about Darwin in this chapter. He never even explains exactly why and how Darwin "struggled" with "free will and responsibility." Nor does West ever explain or defend his own conception of "free will."

In Darwinian Natural Right (83-87), I have defended a conception of "natural freedom" as compatible with a Darwinian naturalism in accounting for moral responsibility. West doesn't respond to such a conception.

In his notebooks, Darwin endorsed the idea that "every action whatever is the effect of a motive," and for that reason he doubted the existence of "free will." Our motives arise from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, and external conditions. Still, although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, Darwin believes, we are morally responsible for our actions because of our uniquely human capacity for reflecting on our motives and circumstances and acting in the light of those reflections. As he wrote in The Descent of Man, "a moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals."

If "free will" means "uncaused cause," then God is the only being with "free will," because whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from all eternity could be uncaused or undetermined. So instead of attributing "free will" to human beings, we should say that human beings have the moral freedom to act as one chooses, regardless of the cause of the choice. (Here I am following the reasoning of Jonathan Edwards.)

I agree with Aristotle, who never speaks of "free will." Aristotle believes we hold people responsible for their actions when they act voluntarily and deliberately. They act voluntarily when they act knowingly and without external force to satisfy their desires. They act with deliberate choice when, having weighed one desire against another in the light of past experience and future expectations, they choose that course of action likely to satisfy their desires harmoniously over a complete life. Such deliberation is required for "virtue in the strict sense," although most human beings most of the time act by impulse and habit with little or no deliberation.

Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action. But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice. Thus, for Aristotle, being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible, one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. One must do this to become happy as a human being, which is the ultimate end of all human action.

This Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding of moral responsibility is supported by a modern scientific understanding of human nature. In Darwinian Conservatism, I indicate how modern neuroscience might explain the emergence of human freedom through the evolution of the primate brain.

West doesn't explain what's wrong with such a naturalistic understanding of human moral freedom. Nor does he explain how he would defend a conception of "free will" as "uncaused cause." It seems that thinking through such things is not part of the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy."


Tom Clark said...

Thanks for pointing out the absurdity of West's appeal to contra-causal free will. But I wonder whether it's possible to justify retribution, given your compatibilist conception of moral responsibility. Do people *deserve* punishment if they've been fully caused to be who they are, and act as they do? This isn't to say there isn't a role for sanctions as deterrents, and non-punitive detention for public safety, but the idea that people categorically *deserve* to suffer for their misdeeds seems hard to sustain in the face of determinism. If so, this suggests there should be revisions to our criminal justice system in light of naturalism, namely to drop our retributive practices and policies.

Dave said...

A system of comfortable (yet indefinite) detention and positive rehabilitation was proposed on precisely these grounds by Charles Peirce ("Dmesis"). He asserted that the only reason for punishing criminals is because we hate them.

Larry, the document you link to is intriguing, although I wondered about its direct source. One of the typographical errors in it is an OCR error, one is a cognitive error, and one is a transposition that reflects a subtle sarcasm. I think a scan of the original would have been preferable.

The "wedge strategy" itself is an interesting, but misguided, concept. If it is depicted accurately, its shallowness doesn't bode well for ID.