Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Condemned to freedom – or at least to fretting over it...

A couple of years ago the NYT started a philosophy blog, “The Stone” (this was a key piece of evidence cited recently by Carlin Romano in support of his provocative thesis that America, usually seen as an “ ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society,” in fact now “towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia”). Academic philosophers posting on “The Stone” have debated many topics, but one seems to have become a perennial favorite – the old dilemma about free will.

In a world where everything is part of a larger causal chain (and neuroscientists can predict the decisions of humans and lab animals a couple of seconds before they make a particular choice), how can we still claim to possess free will? And how can anyone be held morally responsible for their choices and actions?

Back in 2010, philosophy professor Galen Strawson added a Nietzschean twist to the old argument. He asserted that “it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false.” In either case, “we can’t be ultimately morally responsible” – because we cannot be the causa sui (the cause of ourselves) at any given moment in our lives. Despite much constructivist drivel, “we” cannot create the person which makes this or that moral choice ex nihilo. Strawson argued, nevertheless, that we do feel morally responsible for the choices we make, even if logic tells us that we shouldn't.

I am not sure about Prof. Strawson and his readers (or even about myself), but it's clear that many key decision makers whose choices are tremendously consequential do not quite fit his model. Whom do I have in mind? The people who may have destroyed the financial bedrock of Western civilization; and who actively prevented General Dallaire from getting the reinforcements he requested in Rwanda; and who sell sugary drinks and superpalatable chemical contraptions to kids; and who sell kids to advertisers; the list could go on and on, but you get the idea. These people have mostly been immune to even the slightest remorse. Plus, as behavioral economists Dan Ariely suggests in his new book, “we” often tend to cheat in our daily lives – just a little, so we can retain an image of ourselves as upright individuals.

The other problem with Strawson's argument is, well, more philosophical. If the notions of free will and personal responsibility need so much spirited defense from scores of professional sophists, they must be in real trouble. Particularly in the age of brain scanning, expanding waistlines, collapsing bottom lines, and other quasi-medical and social problems...