Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wake Up Peter Johnston (And Leon Wieseltier), I'm Calling You Out

Okay Peter, just because I let you off easy once doesn't mean that this aggression will stand. What aggression? After about 500 words of throat-clearing, in two and a half newspaper-sized paragraphs, Johnston proves substance dualism to be true, that we have free will, and that God exists. Problems solved, time for philosophy departments to pack up and go home. Take a gander:
I have not given my mom a phone call for a month and have no legitimate excuse. Such an excuse would be nice for me; if it were impossible that I call my mom, I would not have to take responsibility for my actions. Determinism is so useful! Unfortunately, when I explain to my mom the mass of forces of this fatalistic universe conspired to coerce me into not calling her for a month, she is generally unlikely to buy it. I am responsible for my inappropriate action because I was free to do otherwise. I have the capacity of free will.

But we know material forces act according to natural laws and the velocity of every atom is an effect with a proportionate cause. The human body and brain are made of atoms. If the human body constitutes the human being, it is materially determined.

I have established that I have the capacity of uncoerced action. All of us experience freedom. The human body, then, must not constitute the entirety of the human being. In addition to this facet, the human being must also have a non-material facet. I will call this the soul. I know this soul is non-material and enables the capacity of uncoerced action. But I know I, as a human, have an origin. Thus, my soul must have had an origin. My soul must have been created by something. No material thing could have created my soul, for the effect would have been greater than the cause.

There must be a non-material thing that created my soul. I will call this God. I will explore the consequences of this and define my position in a column next week.
Got that? There's going to be more. Actually, this abortion of a column is only leg two of a triathlon which began with this philistine piece on "ideological evolution" [sic] and will culminate with---I shudder to think what with. As a colleague of mine put it, Johnston deserves a commemorative plate or something for the three-fer.

Now, why is this worth writing about at all, you ask? Answer: Because Johnston is at least as sophisticated a philosopher as any bigtime pundit; his conclusions may look out of the mainstream, but the bullshit coming out of his mouth bears a close formal resemblance to the philosophastering of respected news and opinion journals.

What's bullshit about it, you ask? It may be a position you disagree with, but it's still a position? Answer: Utterly wrong. It is not a position. It is a compilation of lecture notes (second- and third-hand ideas play this role for professional pundits) with massive confusion, equivocation, and unexamined bias grafted onto it. The sad thing is that the philosophical concepts in play are not of a nature that requires any exceedingly technical analysis, and they are crucially important in the moral decisions about how to order one's life that every person, philosopher or not, aware of the fact or not, inevitably engages with.

The best advice in philosophy is to take things slowly, so let's do that. I said at the outset that Johnston proves (well, "proves") substance dualism, the existence of free will, and the existence of God in sound-bite sized chunks of language. Those are three separate conclusions. Johnston evidently believes them to be one, or thinks them all intimately connected, or fails utterly to appreciate where the conceptual dividing lines are. And in that error, he is joined by some significant proportion of people who would consider themselves literate and cultured, even liberal. The idea is: physicalism is incompatible with free will, there is free will, therefore some non-physicalism is true, therefore---and here the paths diverge: Thomism and the Francoism into which it has evolved, i.e., what's left of the philosophical substance of the religious right, after making a series of unwarranted theoretical leaps, now leaps off a cliff from non-physicalism to dualism to theism to Christianity to trinitarianism. Not one step follows from the last. But liberals have no right to laugh it up; so much better than the blinkering dogmatism of the religious right are they, that they'll indulge in every spiritualistic, supernaturalistic mania before confronting the blatant question-begging of the presupposition of the existence of free-will, and the less blatant but still theory-killing question-begging of the assumption that non-physicalism can handle the paradox of free will any better than physicalism can.

And here is the simplest statement of the paradox of free will. If you're going to argue that free will exists, you must have an answer to this---or you just don't count. All of the following four statements jibe with intuition but at least one of them must be false on pain of contradiction:
(1) We have free will.
(2) If the universe is deterministic, we don't have free will.
(3) If the universe is indeterministic, we don't have free will.
(4) The universe is either deterministic or indeterministic.
(4) is simply an instance of the law of the excluded middle. If you're prepared to deny (4)'re not actually prepared to deny (4), whatever your protestations. You live by assuming the law of the excluded middle.

So one of (1)-(3) has got to be false. But (2) and (3), while not truths of logic alone, look pretty sound. The denial of (2) and (3) is compatibilism, and to cut a long story short, it doesn't work. [UPDATE: This can get really complicated, and it would be a distraction to get too heavily into the technical work that's going on; suffice it to say, compatibilism gets the modalities wrong.]

So that leaves (1). It's not in whole or in part a truth of logic. It's not a statement with any empirical confirmation of the sort admissible in science behind it. It's an intuition, just an intuition. "It's not just an intuition," squeals the free-will dogmatist. "I actually have the experience of acting freely." Indeed. And many people do not have that experience, after reflecting on it just as thoroughly as the upholders of free-will. And what's more (and more important), given the absence of free will, the alternative theories do indeed predict the datum of the experience of free will. If the universe is deterministic, then the laws of nature and the states of fundamental particles at the time of the Big Bang determine that in 2006, Peter Johnston will have the experience of having free will. If the universe is indeterministic, then by quantum coin flip, Peter Johnston had the experience of having free will. The experience anyone has of having free will is therefore utterly irrelevant as evidence for or against it. So the intuition is just raw assertion. It might have utilitarian backing of some sort---perhaps societies flourish where belief in the existence of free will is dominant---but that tells us nothing about whether or not free will exists. Hence, of (1)-(4), (2) (3) and (4) have varying degrees of objective backing, (1) has none. And one of (1)-(4) must be false. So the only warranted conclusion is that (1) is false. QED.

But pretend Johnston wasn't dead from the get-go. Suppose that some very sophisticated instruments are actually able to detect free will indirectly through, let's say, surface spectral reflectance of medium-sized dry goods. What then? Has physicalism been disproved? Hardly. The question of free will vs. determinism vs. indeterminism is utterly separate from the question of physicalism vs. dualism (or any other contender). Whichever of physicalism and dualism is right must necessarily be consistent with whichever of free will, determinism, and indeterminism is right. And whether physicalism or dualism is right, the appearance of law-like regularities in nature is unaffected. According to physicalism, all of nature is related by physical laws. According to Berkeleyan idealism, all of nature is related by psychological laws (God's coordination, or whatever). According to dualism, there are physical things and mental things, the physical things related to each other by physical laws, the mental things related by psychological laws, and the mental and physical things related to each other by psychophysical bridge laws of some sort. Well, that's quite the conundrum. Laws don't become less restrictive when you multiply them. In fact, they have a tendency to become moreso (ask any libertarian). So if free will exists, it must be consistent with law-like regularity, whatever the nature of the relata that the regularities relate might be.

It's not just Johnston that is completely hopeless engaging with this stuff. It's paladins of intellectualism like Leon Wieseltier too. I'm working on a long-ish journal article about the old bore, so I'll confine things to a lowlight:
You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.
The context is a scorched-earth review of Daniel Dennett's new book that manages to commit errors a freshman in an introductory lecture course in philosophy wouldn't be able to get away with. Wieseltier attempts to convict Dennett of genetic fallacy, hence the quoted tangle. Now, while it's quite correct that the only way to show that ~p is to show that ~p, there is nothing fallacious about questioning the grounds for belief in p. For example, some people believe that God exists because the Bible says so and God wrote the Bible. But if you were to show them that people wrote the Bible that says that God exists, you would not have proven that God does not exist, but you would have removed one of their reasons for believing that God exists. And if they have no other reason for believing, then they have an epistemic obligation to suspend belief. It's not disproof, it's disillusion.

Things just get worse for Wieseltier. "If you believe you can disprove a belief [without disproving its content], you don't believe in reason." Hmm. I see a conditional. An if p, then q. Let's all take out our truth tables. (If p then q) is false iff. p is true and q is false. So: S believes you can disprove a belief without disproving its content; but S does also believe in reason, and is just confused about what genetic fallacy is (sound familiar?). So p is true, q is false. So (if p then q) false. So the conditional is false. Who doesn't believe in reason? Just goes to show that sipping martinis with Saul Bellow is not a form of enlightenment.


At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of what seems to have annoyed many philosophers, and you, about Wieseltier's review is that he treads so confidently on philosophical ground without regard for the carefulness and rigor of philosophical inquiry. He makes claims that he doesn't argue thoroughly for (your example is a good one). And this leaves him open to charges of incompetence: he wants to say something serious about philosophy, but doesn't do a very good job at it--and ends up bludgeoning and wailing.

But there is at least something worthy of serious consideration in the "tangle" you quote. His claim that genetic tests are a problematic means for evaluating the validity of beliefs is not stupid: there are good, sober reasons to wonder how much work a genetic test can do. (See Kieran Setiya's excellent post.) How, for instance, does a genetic test have any bearing on a belief whose grounds are philosophical? Or how do you "show" something factual such that there is an "epistemic obligation" to become disillusioned?

I am not trying to defend Wieseltier's polemics against Dennett. I'm just not persuaded that it's fair, or productive, to smoke out some bullshit and then make some kind of condemnation. (To do so for Johnston, who is a college freshman, seems even more unfair.) It's not hard to show that Wieseltier's thinking is a little crude and arrogant. But there are philosophical questions one risks ignoring, if that's all you can say about the review. It's not that Wieseltier has a position that requires a response; it's that he echoes concerns that reasonable philosophers have.

At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote, "For example, some people believe that God exists because the Bible says so and God wrote the Bible."

This seems like a very foolish and circular argument. However, I still believe that God exists. Let me extend the foolish arguement.

The Christian God exists because the Bible says he does.

The Bible is trustworthy because Jesus thought it was trustworthy.

Jesus is trustworthy because he is God.

Jesus is God because he rose from the dead.

Jesus rose from the dead because there's no other explanation for the church.

What did the first Christians have to gain by claiming they saw Jesus after he rose from the dead?--torture and execution.

That's why I believe.


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