Saturday, September 18, 2010

Free Will and Dilley's Secrecy

In Stephen Dilley's APSA conference paper, he writes:

This essay proposes that Arnhart's conservatism fails for a more fundamental reason: it implies determinism of the human mind such that human beings are incapable of the kind of free will necessary for meaningful morality, including conservative morality. Arnhart's allegiance to Darwinism--with its sole reliance on material-efficient causes and rejection of human telos and essentia--fails to ground 'genuine' free will. But without free will, morality and traditional values become meaningless. Thus the proposed union between Darwinism and conservative beliefs cannot be sustained.

In a footnote to this statement, Dilley writes: "The notion of 'free will' used in this essay will be clarified below." In my recent post, I noted that he never fulfills his promise to explain what he means by "free will." I said that "it's hard to know how to respond" to his criticisms without this explanation.

Now, in his most recent statement, he complains that it's not right for me to ask for this explanation, because he is making a purely negative argument against me that does not require any positive argument from him. He even says that he wants to keep it a secret as to whether he really believes in free will: "nothing in my article implied that I personally accept 'agent causation' or 'uncaused causes.'"

So, in effect, Dilley is saying: I want you to respond to my criticism that your position implies "that human beings are incapable of the kind of free will necessary for meaningful morality," but I am not going to give you any definition or explanation of what I mean by "free will."

Well, if these are the rules of the debate, then I might as well surrender.

All that I can do is to point to what I have said about "natural freedom" in Darwinian Natural Right (83-87) and in various posts on this blog. My fundamental claim in these remarks is that "free will" as "uncaused cause" makes no sense in application to human beings. Whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from eternity--God--could be uncaused. Against the incomprehensible claim that human beings have the free will to act as divine uncaused causes, I argue that the common-sense notion of human freedom is the power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice. We are free when our actions and thoughts are determined by our deliberate choices.

Against this conception of natural freedom, Dilley assmes a radically reductionist view of causal determinism: when a human being chooses what to do or think based on his beliefs and desires, "he no more chooses his actions than a domino chooses its action in a falling line." So, for Dilley, the causal determinism of our deliberate choices is no different from the causal determinism of falling dominoes. Apparently, for Dilley, the only escape from this reductionist determinism is "free will," but then he's not going to tell us what he means by "free will," or even whether he believes there is "free will."

One possible explanation for Dilley's secrecy is that while he believes morality is meaningless without "free will" as "uncaused cause," he doesn't believe there is such "free will." In that case, he would be a moral nihilist, and he would be criticizing me for not facing up to the truth of moral nihilism.


w said...

Well said.

Your interlocuter is obviously merely repeating the way this argument is commonly posed in analytic philosophy 101: “we assume that the natural world follows natural laws; humans and the human brain are material; therefore, all products – thoughts, action, etc. – of the human brain are determined by ironclad natural laws.” He then notes that yours is a naturalist view and assumes that the above syllolgy is correct and that you don’t address it (which you obviously do).

It strikes me that this common argument he repeats is fallacious on three counts, in that it simplifies, it ignores, and it assumes the possibility of a too perfect knowledge. It’s simplification is self-evident and present in its assumptions. It ignores both our commonsense, prescientific understanding of living things, as well as much of the modern, scientific, empirical, biological understanding. It assumes the possibility of an absolute scientific understanding by demanding a reductionist explanation for all observed phenomena and, perhaps most importantly, dismissing those phenomena as misunderstood if we are not capable (at present time, let alone ever) of describing them in this way.

But it is not just the human mind as an emergent property of the brain that is a mystery, but life itself is a mystery in a broader but analogous way. And indeed, more specifically the non-human “mind” is also a mystery in an analgous if less complex way to the human mind. (I sometimes wonder if those who makes these arguments have never had a pet. Certainly our commonsense understanding of our beloved dogs includes knowing that they are not simply automatons. They may not plan for retirement, or make complex deliberate rational decisions, or communicate through intelligible language, and perhaps I am less “determined” by my hunger, thirst, and fatigue at any moment in time, but nonetheless a simple game of fetch or a scratch behind the ears allows even a child to understand that the reductionist argument in the “free will vs. determinsism” syllology is somehow false [I do not say this to imply "dog morality" but only to point out the obvious that even our non-human companions' behavior is not simply and directly reducible to biochemistry]).

To take this a step further, on an even simpler level than the central nervous system, one could argue that we don’t fully understand how the liver is an emergent property of the hepatocyte, etc., yet this lack of understanding does not change the reality of the observed phenomena, which is indeed prior epistomologically to our understanding of the biochemical and cellular phenomena.

Your argument, then, if I understand it correctly is that there is somehow a biologic “halfway house” between free will and determinism which is not only observable, but that we know prior to any deeper scientific understanding. The argument made against this view is made in the assumptions about nature itself and not in the logic of the argument nor in empirical observation - which is hardly an argument at all. That is, Prof. Dilley repeatedly say that Prof Arnhart does not escape the materialistic determinism charge which is based on an argument that assumes a priori this very description of determinism!

The Strauss quote from his correspondence with Kojeve also more succinctly comes to mind ("the difference between Plato and Aristotle is that Aristotle believes that biology, as a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man, is available").

Larry Arnhart said...


Thank you. Your points are well stated, and they help to clarify what's at issue here.

w said...

Thank you for letting me post such a long comment. Your kind words are high praise.


Greg R. Lawson said...

It would seem to me the core issue here is purpose.

Even if we could say that our observed morality and ethics are actually the result of an immanent, biological teleology (and I think Prof. Arnhart makes a solidly reasonable argument for this possibility), that would not answer the perpetual "why"?

It is the "why" that drives the cleaage between Plato and Aristotle.

If there is no "why", then nihilism is an obvious, and likely, consequence of there not being a truly transcendent purpose to all existance. After all, if there is nothing transcendent, then all is mere utility within the context of what is biologically (or physically) possible with no fundamental understanding of why that which is biologically (or physically) possible is so.

If there is any totality of purpose in the order of not just finite humans and other animals, but in the universe at large, it must be cosmological otherwise all is essentially meaningless happenstance where each small development can make sense in relation to its cause all the way back to the looming question of "First Cause." Yet, here the "First Cause" itself remains impenetrable.

In other words, without cosmology, we may know all of the small "whys" but never understand the big "why." Why is there anything rather than nothing.