Friday, September 17, 2010

The Question of Free Will: Stephen Dilley's Reply

Recently, I wrote a post on Stephen Dilley's argument that I deny free will and thus endorse a determinism that would make moral responsibility impossible. He has written a response to this post, which I provide here in its entirety.

Stephen Dilley
Department of Philosophy
St. Edward's University
Austin, Texas

September 17, 2010

I am thankful to Prof. Arnhart for his generosity in allowing me to reply on his blog to the questions he raised about my 2008 essay. Since the original exchange between us took place two years ago, some background may be helpful. In my original article (as well as my APSA paper in 2009), I argued two central claims. First, I contended that Prof. Arnhart's account of the emergence of the human mind implies determinism of the mind, which renders human beings incapable of the kind of free will necessary for meaningful morality. Second, I held that his deterministic view is incompatible with traditional conservative understandings of human volition and moral responsibility. The first of these claims is the most fundamental, so I will focus on it in what follows. (Readers who would like a copy of my original article can email me at

In two blog posts, Prof. Arnhart responded to my article, asking me a number of questions--more than a dozen, by my count. Since I cannot respond to all of them in the space of a blog entry, I will instead focus on his central queries, which form the basis for most of his other questions. Prof. Arnhart's key questions arise as part of his main response to my criticisms of his account of the origin of the mind as well as the implications of his view for human volition. He asks:

Does Dilley have his own detailed explanation of how exactly the human mind originated? If he does, he does not lay it out in this article. It's hard to know how to respond to his criticism of my account of the evolutionary emergence of mind, because he offers no alternative explanation of his own. Similarly, it's hard to respond to his criticism of my account of human mental freedom, because he never explains his alternative.

Regarding my critique of his view of human volition, he also queries:

So what is Dilley's alternative? It's not clear. He refers to "agent causes." He never explains what that means. But since he rejects my idea that in human choices, our beliefs and desires causally determine our actions, I can only infer that he is implicitly appealing to free will as uncaused cause.

In his original post, as well as his recent follow-up, Prof. Arnhart also picks up on my observation that his naturalism prohibits appeal to "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes." He wonders if I believe that these entities explain the origin of the mind and volition. He then goes on to critique this view, as well as the notion of free will as "uncaused cause," asking me a range of questions about Aristotle, Jonathan Edwards, and the like.

There are two salient features of Prof. Arnhart's inquiries: first, he states that "it's hard to know how to respond" to my criticisms of his view of mind and will because I do not supply an alternative. Second, he wonders about my (undeveloped) alternative, critiquing what he takes to be my reliance on non-material causes or uncaused causes.

So what can I say for myself? My main reply, in brief, is that his questions send him in the wrong direction. The point of my article (as well as the 2009 APSA paper) was to offer a critique of his position. That is, my intention was to raise criticisms of his positive account by contending that it led to determinism, which I argued destroys any meaningful account of human morality, including traditional conservative morality. I did not intend--and still do not intend--to offer a positive account of human volition or the origin of the human mind. The simple fact is that I do not need to give my own account in order to criticize Prof. Arnhart's account. One does not need a positive theory of one's own in order to argue that a colleague's theory is mistaken. I do not need to own my own baseball team in order to recognize that the Seattle Mariners play lousy ball. Nor do I need my own developed foreign policy in order to recognize that randomly bombing other countries just for kicks makes for sketchy diplomacy.

(As it happens, I have puzzles or questions about the major theories of the nature of human volition as well as questions about the major theories of the origin of the mind. In my article, I included talk of "agent causes" and related concepts in order to explain a "common sense" view of free will--held by conservatives and non-Westerners--which I juxtaposed to Prof. Arnhart's deterministic perspective; nothing in my article implied that I personally accept "agent causation" or "uncaused causes.")

But, more to the point, my personal account (or lack of account) about the nature of human volition and the origin of the mind is entirely irrelevant to the key point at issue--namely, whether Prof. Arnhart's view leads to the disintegration of meaningful morality. To see this, suppose for the sake of argument that my own views about the human mind and will are pathetically mistaken--on par with something, say, Paris Hilton would dream up after a long night of cocktails. Does this imply that my original criticisms of Prof. Arnhart's view are incorrect? Not the least. Does it also imply that Prof. Arnhart's account harmonizes with meaningful morality? Of course not. It may be the case that both of our views are incorrect. And just because I may have a false or unjustified (or non-existent) positive account does not epistemically or logically preclude me from point out difficulties in his positive account.

(If Prof. Arnhart has an interest in criticizing alternative views of mind and will, I would suggest he take a look, among other places, at the work of analytic philosophers like J. P. Moreland, Angus Menuge, Steward Goetz, and Charles Taliaferro. I think there is much to admire, as well as to wonder about, in their work.)

So, I am puzzled by Prof. Arnhart's claim that "it's hard to know how to respond" to my criticisms of his views because I don't supply an alternative. Surely, even if my own positive theory is crazy or non-existent, he must still reply to the criticism that his view leads to determinism and the disintegration of meaningful morality, including conservative morality. This is the key point. And, for the record, it is not clear to me that Prof. Arnhart has given a satisfactory response to this challenge.

Perhaps I should end my response here. But because it seems to me that Prof. Arnhart has not adequately met the challenge, let me briefly trace some of its contours once again. The task for Prof. Arnhart is to show how meaningful morality--including the morality presupposed in conservatism--is compatible with his determinism. He takes a Humean compatibilist tact, which holds that determinism and human mental freedom do not conflict (see DNR, pp. 83-87). To my knowledge, Prof. Arnhart has not given a clear and exact definition of determinism, but, as I gestured in my original article, his naturalistic metaphysics implies something like the following: event or entity X is determined if and only if X arises entirely due to prior material causes and, given these causes, could not have been different. What Prof. Arnhart's determinism implies for human beings is that a given individual's beliefs, desires, actions, etc. could not have been different. As such, all of the individual's beliefs, desires, actions, etc. are entirely outside of his control. Even if the individual has "freedom" in the compatibilist sense that he always acts according to his beliefs and desires (as opposed to acting due to external coercion), his beliefs and desires are still determined by prior material causes completely beyond his control. He may feel "from the inside" as if he is choosing, but this is an illusion. He no more chooses his actions than a domino chooses its action in a falling line.

As I see it, Prof. Arnhart's determinism destroys meaningful morality. It is nonsense to say that a person "ought" to do something when he has no control over whether or not he can. Should we condemn a paraplegic for failing to save a drowning child? If so, then why not rebuke a toaster for moving slowly in the fast lane? Or why not chastise a coffee machine for not photocopying? Likewise, it does not make sense to condemn Hitler for his actions when he could not have done otherwise. Like the toaster and the coffeemaker, his actions were entirely the product of forces beyond his control.

Prof. Arnhart may appeal to the evolution of the neocortex as gracing human beings, unlike toasters and coffeemakers, with the "emergent" property of deliberation and choice. But as I show in my article, Arnhart's account of emergence does not escape determinism--a claim that Prof. Arnhart did not dispute in either of his blog responses. If he now disputes this claim, I am puzzled as to why he did not do so earlier and why, more fundamentally, he self-consciously adopts Humean compatibilism, which attempts to reconcile freedom and determinism. (Typically, a person only attempts to reconcile two views when he accepts both; reconciliation is unnecessary when he has rejected one or both views.)

Accordingly, the pressing question for Prof. Arnhart to answer straightforwardly is: how can there be meaningful morality (consonant with conservatism, no less) when his view implies that each individual's beliefs, desires, actions, decisions, etc. are entirely the product of prior material causes (in play before his or her birth)and that given these causes, an individual's beliefs, desires, actions, etc. could not have been different? Even if rival theories of the human mind and will are deeply mistaken, Prof. Arnhart must still provide a compelling answer to this question.

One final point remains: in my opinion, Prof. Arnhart does not fully appreciate the implications of determinism for his whole project. To point to just one example, if determinism is true, then all of an individual's beliefs, like her behaviors, are products of material forces beyond her control. (While we don't typically exercise direct control over our beliefs, the typical pre-theoretic view--rightly or wrongly--holds that we have some level of volition that allows us to have at least some indirect influence on our belief formation, say, by spending time reading relevant sources, listening carefully to both sides, trying to weigh evidence judiciously, and the like.) But on Prof. Arnhart's view, none of these activities is within our control. In fact, the ultimate reason a person accepts the claims she does is entirely due to material causes prior to her birth, causes which preclude her from accepting any other claims. He beliefs, like her behavior, are due to causes beyond her (direct or indirect) power.

Why, then, does Prof. Arnhart accept the tenets of his own Darwinian Conservatism? Why does he accept the "emergence" thesis of the origin of the human mind? And why, I wonder, did he miss the point of my original article? The answer is because he was determined to. Given the array of physical causes prior to his birth, he could not have believed anything else. And why do scads of biologists accept that the neo-cortex evolved by natural processes from some simpler primate brain? The familiar refrain sounds again.

It seems to me that this view comes as close as anything to destroying the justification for our beliefs as well as rationality itself. (For those who are interested, Angus Menuge, Victor Reppert, and Alvin Plantinga, among others, have independently given rigorous formulation to this general line of thinking.) By Prof. Arnhart's lights, the reason that I persist in my stubborn unbelief of his views, and that he does not, is because neither of us could do otherwise. Our intellectual lives, like our actions, are essentially meaningless. Material causes have swallowed us whole.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

A few reasons why one might want to know what you think is a better alternative.

First, it is a simple fact that when you are critiquing something, you are comparing it to something else. It may be conscious or unconscious, but that comparison exists nonetheless. If you have never seen a movie before, when you see your first movie, you have no idea whether it is good or not, because there is nothing to compare it to.

Second, the arguments I make are going to be determined by what I am comparing it to. If I am arguing against, say, the Christian God, then it matters whether I am an atheist or I believe in Zeus. One can make better sense of my arguments if you know from what perspective I am arguing.

Third, without an alternative, your critique amounts to, "so what?" What I mean by that is that you may just be identifying all the factual elements of what Arnhart believes. That's not really a critique, if you're just restating facts -- which is in fact all you're really doing without positing an alternative. What you point out may in fact coincide with what he believes free will to be. Again, you are bringing in a term without defining it. Thus, you are comparing things without telling us what you are comparing Arnhart's arguments to. The comparison necessarily lies in the background of any argument. It is best (and one is tempted to say, more intellectually honest) to make those comparisons explicit.

Finally, one can have a bottom-up, deterministic process which gives rise to emergent patterns which, in turn, affect the actions of the network which gave rise to the emergent patterns in a top-down feedback loop. This higher-order emergent process is the mind when the network is the brain. The brain network may be biologically deterministic (which is in fact different from being chemically deterministic and quantum physically deterministic), but the emergent mind is not. It is at a higher level of complexity. Thus, it has more feeedom than the brain. More, as stated above, it affects the workings of the brain in a top-down fashion. This influence is free will. The mind arises from a deterministic process, but it is itself not deterministic. I may be wrong, but I believe, based on my readings of Arnhart here that this is more or less what he believes. He can correct me if I'm wrong.