Friday, August 22, 2003

THE KANT OF THE CLERK: Over lunch this week, the Clerk mentioned to me that he has a Kantian take on the liberal-ontology/communitarian-teleology theory of Mormonism. He sees the same tension getting worked out in Kant's philosophy with the contrast between the transcendental ego and the kingdom of ends. I can only hope that he will elaborate on this for us...
CONGRATULATIONS!: I just saw the new addition to the Scientist's family. Very cute little girl! I hope that Sister Scientist is doing well. Congratulations!
A QUICK, IGNORANT, RESPONSE: First for the record, I argue that Mormonism has a "liberal" ontology, not a "libertarian" ontology. I am not sure if this is significant, but my version does have fewer syllables. I agree with the Scientist that libertarian free will, at least as propounded by Ostler, does have a difficult time providing a good account of character.

I have spent very little time with the philosophical discussion of free-will, but I am curious about the Scientist's thinking on this. Let me offer a real "hypothetical." Consider the case of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990). At issue was a Michigan law that made it a crime for a corporation to engage in "issue advocacy." What this means is that it was illegal for a corporation to comment on any political issue, including those that might vitally effect the corporation's interests. Now one would think that this is a pretty straight forward and egregious violation of free speech. There are none of the fun complications -- private property rights, public forums, etc. -- that make the Main Street Plaza litigation in Salt Lake so much fun. Rather, this is a plain old fashion law that says "If you talk about a particular subject you will be punished." (Just so the politics of this law are clear, there was no similar restriction on the ability of unions to engage in issue advocacy).

Justice Marshall, in his infinite wisdom, wrote an opinion upholding the law. Marshall argued that the law was necessary to control the "the corrosive and distorting effects" of corporate advocacy. Put another way, the law, so the argument went, was necessary because corporate advocacy might be effective and people might change their minds (and votes) as a result. In the view of Marshall and the majority of the Court such influence was illegitimate and undeserving of constitutional protection. It is dangerous to assume that judges are acting on the basis of metaphysical assumptions, but I can't help but thinking that there is some determinism or soft determinism behind Marshall's reasoning. I think it goes something like this: even if voters acted "freely" on the basis desires or opinions formed through corporate advocacy, since those desires and opinions were not themselves freely chosen actions resulting from corporate issue advocacy are not themselves deserving of moral, political, or legal respect. This move allows one to then recharacterize -- and regulate -- corporate speech in terms of force and coercion. Undeniably corporate issue advocacy has some effect on the outcome of policy. (Although if the social science research is to be trusted, much less than one would expect given the discussion in the popular media.) However, if the causal chain flows through freely choosing and morally responsible individuals, then it seems that we have is democracy. On the other hand, if there is no morally significant choice in the causal chain, then we have corrosion and corruption.

It seems to me that at this point, the debate about free will and determinism takes on some practical importance. Forget silly hypos about evil neurosurgeons. Talk to me about how I should think about Austin. As you can tell from my rantings above, I am skeptical about Marshall's reasoning, but perhaps there is something to it.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

WARNING! Long-winded metaphysical ranting on freedom! Proceed with caution!

The question of metaphysical freedom does not have a great hold on most people's minds. Fatalism is not compelling and in the end we deliberate and act under the idea of freedom anyway, so what is the point of debating whether a strong contra-causal (or libertarian) concept of free-will is right? Blake Ostler spends nearly half of his first treatise on Mormon thought on God discussing the compatibility of free will and divine foreknowledge. Central to his discussion is the Mormon concept of free agency (chapter 7) in which he insists that a contra-causal notion of free will is necessary for Mormonism. A long discussion on LDS-Phil about a month ago centered on this very topic and several critiques were made of Blake's arguments. I have become engaged in the issue because I think it bears on the issue of agency, of proper use of agency (morality), and our development of character; I am unwilling to give up free will and Mormon insights about this issue, but Blake argues that I need give up my naturalism and "soft determinism" to maintain these principles.

First I will present the core of Blake's arguments for libertarian freedom, a thought experiment of his own design and his analysis, and then finally some problems I see and possible paths toward a compatibilist solution (compatibility of freedom and causal determinism). The contra-causal or libertarian ideal of freedom is that "persons cannot be free unless they can do otherwise given all the circumstances that obtain in the moment of free decision" (206), or in other words the agent "could have done otherwise." Contrast this with Hume: "By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will…" For Hume we are free as long as we can act on our desires; I will refer to this as "free action," and it also goes by the name soft determinism.

According to Blake (206-207), libertarian freedom is supported by the following four intuitions: 1) The notion persons are morally responsible seems to require the ability to do otherwise. If causal determinism is true then persons cannot ever do otherwise than they actually do. 2) It is self-evident that sometimes my acts and decisions are up to me. It would not be 'up to me' if it were externally or internally compelled. 3) I deliberate about my actions, suggesting there are several possible futures. 4) I sometimes choose between two or more options. After these four intuitions, he cites 2 Nephi 2 and from it derives: A) "free agents are minimally the sorts of beings that can appreciate the consequences and moral significance of their actions." B) "Persons are not free if they are merely acted upon and do not act for themselves." C) Free will requires a choice among enticing and genuinely open options. He concludes: "Mormonism rejects the notion that free will is possible if causal determinism is true."

Now for his thought experiment: A nefarious neurosurgeon implants a device in the brain of Kid Rock such that he can "stimulate the brain electronically to induce irresistible desires in Rock." The neurosurgeon then induces Rock to steal Mars bars from a local 7-Eleven. Is Rock morally responsible for this heinous crime? No, Blake says, and therefore the free action model is wrong. "Free action" holds that Rock is free, since he acted freely according to his desires; a parallel argument could be made about the causes of his other more natural desires if they are causally determined.

I hope that it is clear how contrived this experiment is. Of course there is no such neurosurgeon or bogeyman for us to fear. It is unclear how to electrically induce such a specific desire in someone. What is an irresistible desire, and how is it different from a normal desire? Blake later argues (211) that all desires are passive and are not up to us, but our will can choose between them, and if we act freely on our free "willing" then we are truly free. WHY oh why was this property of the will denied to Kid Rock? How can the neurosurgeon get around the will by inducing an irresistible desire? If it were not such a simple cause, but rather a persuasive philosopher who with his charm convinced Rock to steal, would he still not be free? Furthermore in his example Blake uses another agent--an imaginary manipulative all powerful neurosurgeon. The "parallel" cause with natural causes is not at all "parallel" because the issue at stake is control. A can control B if and only if A has some type of volition or desire concerning B and B is able to be in more than one state. There is no coherent way that we can be controlled by our environment--it is not an agent like the neurosurgeon! It seems that the contrived setup of the thought experiment is doing all the work in "pumping the intuition" that Rock is not free if determinism is true.

I believe it is a mistake to slide from causal determinism to necessity to inevitability. Determinism does not entail fatalism. It seems to me that there is only one future in the same sense that there is only one past. The future is not branched. Only one state of affairs will take place. What we mean by inevitable is "cannot be avoided," and it is clear that this only refers to our expectations--we thought X was going to happen but Y did instead. No real event ever was avoided. It is only an epistemic limitation on our knowing the future, and the inertia of the moment--in our deliberations we see the world in terms of features that will continue normally no matter what we do (what is really 'inevitable') and what we can change by our deliberations (real opportunities). It is pointless to deliberate about the inevitable. But note that inevitable does not mean determined. Everything that happens and makes up the future is causally determined, whether by our deliberations or not.

One of the largest problems I find with libertarian free will is the total indeterminacy. I do not want my choices to be random. When I go to buy soup at the store I want my decision to be effected by the right reasons: ingredients, price etc, not some random whim. Granted, I also do not want to be "forced" into buying Campbell's because some advertising genius put a picture on the label that made it irresistible--but this is not how determinism really works since there is no such genius and what is irresistible anyway? I do not need to have control over all the causes of my decision for it to still be free and responsible. I see the causal nexus as passing through my deliberation, and including all of my previous decisions, desires, emotional states and so forth. I think this even allows for meta-desires, or desires to change desires and so forth which are so important to living a moral and Mormon life.

But libertarian free will does not seem adequate to explain this inertia of character. I am not free in the moment to choose any option--I have previous choices and habits and experiences that pull me in one direction or another. I believe these can pull us into local spaces of fatalism where we genuinely cannot do otherwise. For example I think it is impossible to get me to torture my daughter for $1000. If presented with the opportunity no one would call me "morally irresponsible" for not torturing her. And yet I do not think I could choose otherwise. Why should I have to even consider this option? If, as according to King Benjamin, the spirit has worked in me until I have lost the desire to do all evil, then am I no longer free? And what about God? If God is to be worthy of our worship and faith, we must trust that he will continue to be righteous, just, and loving. Does this mean that God is not free, since He cannot choose otherwise?

I believe that too much focus on the Lawyer's "libertarian ontology" has led Blake to demand a libertarian notion of free will where it is not required. It does emphasize our moral agency which is important in Mormonism, but at the cost of a coherent account of character building and rational choice, not to mention our naturalistic understanding of the universe. Clearly our choices are tied up in our families, our past, our desires, our genetics, and our faith--in short we are not Lockean atomist individuals but causally linked communities and should not desire otherwise. Though I have not provided an account of a Mormon soft-determinist or compatibilist notion of free will , I hope to have created reasonable doubt on the matter. I am indebted to Daniel Dennett's "Elbow Room" (1984) for many of these ideas. I have lots more to say about the issue if any of you find free will interesting. Freely yours,