Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics (2): Deliberate Choice Versus Free Will

One of the most common criticisms of my position is the charge of biological determinism. It is said that any attempt to explain human thought and action as biological denies "free will," and this denial of "free will" makes it impossible to explain how human beings can be morally responsible for their thoughts and actions.

Two years ago, Stephen Dilley wrote an article directing this criticism against me, to which I responded in a post. I raised some questions for Dilley in that post, which I sent to him. But he chose not to respond. Subsequently, he wrote a conference paper for the 2009 convention of the American Political Science Association. But, again, he chose not to respond to my questions. I am still interested in how he would answer my questions, if he ever chooses to do so.

I am reminded of Dilley's concept of "free will" now as I teach my course on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In Book 3 of the Ethics, Aristotle explains how in judging virtues and vices, we recognize actions as "voluntary" (ekousion) or "deliberately chosen" (proairesis). Children and nonhuman animals can act voluntarily when the origin of the act is in themselves--in their beliefs and desires. Only human adults, however, can act with deliberate choice, when they self-consciously choose present courses of action in the light of past experience and future expectations to conform to some general plan of life. Aristotle derives this analysis from his biological writings--especially, On the Movement of Animals. I have adopted this Aristotelian understanding of volition and deliberate choice, while arguing that this arises from the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain.

Notice that there is nothing in this Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding of volition and deliberate choice to suggest the concept of "free will," if by "free will," we mean "uncaused cause." In fact, there's a good argument for the claim that the idea of "free will" is not found in the ancient philosophers, because it did not arise prior to the early Christian Church fathers (such as Augustine).

"Free will" is a projection onto human beings of a divine power, because only the Biblical God can act as an "uncaused cause." Of course, that points to the fundamental problem--the absurdity of attributing to human beings a power that belongs only to God--which is why theologians like Jonathan Edwards have rejected it.

This raises lots of questions. If we can't explain moral responsibility without the concept of "free will," as Dilley assumes, then how did Aristotle do it? Or would Dilley say that Aristotle was mistaken in not understanding that "free will" was required? If "free will" is required, exactly how is it possible for human beings to exercise a power that belongs only to God? How would Dilley answer Edwards?

Notice, however, that I admit in my previous post on Dilley that, as far as I know, no one has yet worked out a detailed explanation for exactly how the human mind arises from the evolution of the brain. And yet there is lots of evidence pointing to the evolutionary history of the primate brain as passing over some kind of critical threshold at which fully human mental capacities appear. Once that happened, human beings were able to exercise a freedom of thought and choice that no other animal has.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I illustrate this through the work of Jeffrey Schwartz with patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, who can be taught to use "directed mental force" to change the neural circuitry of their brains in countering the effects of OCD.

Would Dilley say that the reality of "free will" has nothing to do with the emergent evolution of the primate brain? If so, what alternative explanation does he have? In his first article, he complains that in my reasoning, "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes are out of the picture." But then he never explains exactly how "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes" create human mental freedom. When Schwartz is dealing with his patients, exactly where, when, and how do "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes" intervene to show a "free will" that transcends nature?

Dilley assumes a Kantian distinction between the determinism of the "phenomenal" world of nature and the freedom of the "noumenal" world of morality. But he never explains exactly how that "noumenal" world enters the "phenomenal" world of natural experience. According to Kant, the "noumenal" world is unknowable by natural experience. But if it's unknowable by natural experience, how did Kant know it?

In his APSA paper, Dilley has one footnote that reads: "The notion of 'free will' used in this essay will be clarified below." But I was unable to find that promised clarification anywhere in the essay.

If he could provide that clarification, I would be grateful.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

If we think about the mind as emergent from the activities of the brain, then we can begin to really understand the nature of free will. Since, as Hayek observed, one can only fully understand things less complex than you are, and only partially those of the same (which would include one's own mind, of course) or greater complexity than you, then an extended metaphor based on a less complex level may help:

Suppose you were a conscious amino acid. The material world consists, for you, of fellow biochemicals, and you know too that you are made up of atoms, and that those atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. You go about your business, acting as an individual amino acid, sometimes joining into larger groups (proteins), and then separating out from them. You wander around your society of biochemicals, imagining that this is all there is.

And then one day, a nucleic acid comes to you and tells you that you are part of this larger entity, that your mind is not entirely your own, but that there is this thing out there, this "cell" of which you are a part, that comes in and influences your actions. All that you thought were your choices or merely random events is in fact run by this higher level of complexity known as the "cell." It is not that you don't have choices -- you can be in this or that part of the cell, you may attach yourself to a tRNA, to a protein, to a short polypeptide, etc. -- but you are now informed that there is a greater purpose involved, that you are part of this larger cell, and that your actions help to keep this cell alive.

Now, from the point of view of the amino acid, the cell will seem, in relation to you, "immaterial." It will make no sense from your material point of view. It will seem very strange indeed. You may believe in the cell, or not. There will be discussions among your fellow biochemicals regarding the nature of the cell. Is it material? That is, if it even exists. The "cell" theory does seem to make a lot of things make more sense -- but it is nonetheless troubling. If it is not material in the same sense as a biochemical, is it really material? From our more complex, emergent human perspective, the cell seems to be just as material as as its constituent biochemicals. While, on the other hand, our "mind" appears to be just as immaterial as the cell is to the biochemical.

We look at things fron a neurological perspective, and cannot find "free will" there. However, if there is in fact a mind emergent from the actions of the neurons of the embodied brain, then it will have patterns of its own that will be able to affect the actions of those neurons. The mind emerges from the bottom-up, from the actions of the brain, but the mind in turn acts in a top-down fashion to affect the actions of the brain. This top-down action is "free will."