This is part 2 of today’s summary of the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop (Part 1 is my Powerpoint presentation given below), a meeting that ended yesterday. It makes no attempt to be as complete as Massimo Pigliucci’s account of the conference which he’s posting in bits on Rationally Speaking. (Kudos to Massimo, who was “live-blogging” the conference—or rather, taking copious notes during the discussion that he’d turn into website posts overnight—while also making substantive contributions to the discussion.) My account is more idiosyncratic and personal, and will concentrate on the discussion of free will (see my presentation in the preceding post), and on my own reaction to the meeting.
Massimo’s website gives a pretty accurate account of the discussion of free will two days ago, though he erroneously claims, I think, that the Libet experiments (misspelled “Libbett”) on when “decisions” are made in the brain have been discredited both philosophically and scientifically. In fact, they have been repeated scientifically: one recent study that has been claimed in the press as a failure to repeat Libet et al. (and as a vindication of the notion of “free will”) doesn’t show any such thing; it shows that in one study the “action” potential in the brain indicating an upcoming decision may occur closer to the event than Libet showed (though others have shown, in other cases, that it can occur farther in advance than Libet et al. showed). And, in any case, the “disconfirming” study also showed, like Libet, that one can predict with reasonable accuracy which of two buttons one will press before that decision is reported as being made consciously. This predictability can precede the conscious decision by as much as ten seconds! In my take, that study (I don’t have the reference at the moment as I’m in Boston) does nothing to discredit the Libet and Soon et al. experiments (Soon et al. confirmed Libet’s result using a different form of brain-scanning). And instead of taking the implications of that work seriously, compatibilists do all they can to discredit it.
Massimo’s account of the free-will discussion is fairly accurate, though I think a wee bit self-serving in a few respects, like claiming that Libet’s experiments are no longer credible and say nothing about so-called “free will”. I disagree. But his summary of what agreement transpired is accurate:
Terrence Deacon asked why we insist in using the term “free” will, and Jerry had previously invited people to drop the darn thing. I suggested, and Owen elaborated on it, that we should instead use the terms that cognitive scientists use, like volition or voluntary vs involuntary decision making. Those terms both capture the scientific meaning of what we are talking about and retain the everyday implication that our decisions are ours (and we are therefore responsible for them). And dropping “free” also doesn’t generate confusion about contra-causal mystical-theological mumbo jumbo.
I agree in general with deep-sixing the definition, though the saying that “our decisions are ours” seems to me tautological, and doesn’t buttress any meaningful form of free will.
I add that Dan Dennett himself said he was willing to drop the term “free will” if it were replaced by the term “morally competent volition.” I can’t sanction that one, because I think the term “morally competent” is irrelevant: if we can’t really choose what we do, but are totally constrained by our genes and our environments (something everyone agreed on), then nobody is any more “competent” than anyone else in making decisions. Further, the value of “morality” goes out the window, becoming a shorthand for “how society wants us to behave.”
There are just different strategies for to sanctioning and rewarding those who do good or bad acts depending on which factors motivated those acts, and how punishment, for instance, affects the person’s susceptibility to be rehabilitated, protects society from future bad acts, and deters others from committing them. These are empirical matters that can be decided independently of “competence” and “morality.”
At the end of the meeting we were all asked to give our take on it: did we really move naturalism forward, did we change our minds about anything, and what are the exciting questions that remain? I will speak only for myself here (Massimo will likely give a more complete summary of everyones views soon).
I found the conference interesting but inconclusive. We did not even agree (or much discuss) what naturalism really is, and most people agreed that we disagreed in general: we didn’t come to many conclusions about anything. Nick Pritzker, who sponsored the meeting, agreed with this take. (My slide on “where we agree” below didn’t meet with much disagreement except from Steve Weinberg).
One conclusion, though—one that gratified me immensely—is that several people who did change their minds on an issue said something like: “I decided during the workshop that free will is a philosophical black hole (something that Owen Flanagan asserted at the meeting’s outset) and that we shouldn’t discuss any longer whether it exists.” I think by this they meant that since we are all determinists, discussing whether we have free will becomes a semantic game. Dan Dennett’s claim (see Massimo’s summary) that society will fall apart if we don’t retain some notion of “free will” was not widely shared. I don’t believe it for a minute. That was the claim made for religion, too, but largely atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, are pretty damn harmonious!
We all agreed that dualism (often called “nonphysical libertarian free will”) is dead, and that our decisions are determined largely before we become conscious of “making” them. Surprisingly, Steve Weinberg was the one person who seemed to disagree with this, saying that his consciousness had a “role” in making his decision. I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decison made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.
At any rate, most didn’t think that we should continue debating whether or not we have free will. I consider that as a small personal victory of sorts. As I noted in my presentation below, that doesn’t mean that substantive, interesting, and socially relevant questions about the illusion of “personal agency” don’t remain.
For me the main value of the meeting was meeting: getting together with some of my intellectual heroes and making contact with them in a way that will help me interact with them in the future. I liked everyone at the meeting and hope to continue discussions with several of them, particularly about the relationship between theology and science (something I’m much interested in, but wasn’t discussed at the workshop). I greatly enjoyed Alex Rosenberg’s hard-core determinism, which has given me much food for thought, and thought Steven Weinberg was an awesome intellect—and not just in science. I am now in contact with physicist Janna Levin, and hope in the future that she’ll help me understand the thorny questions of modern particle physics and cosmology (Sean Carroll has been helping me here as well for a while.) Sean did a terrific job of organizing the meeting and doing interim summaries of where we were in each discussion.
What I wished we had talked more about:
- What is real? Weinberg at one point said “Santa Claus is real.” (This was in response to him saying that everything was real, whereupon I asked him whether God was real. His response was “Yes—in the same sense that Santa Claus is real.”) That is confusing; I think: what Weinberg clearly meant was that “the concept of Santa Claus (and God) are real.” That’s a big difference.
- What is naturalism? How can we move it forward if we don’t know what it is? My own take is that the lucubrations of academics can move naturalism forward only slightly, and I argued was that really moving it forward involves changing society in a way that won’t enable or strengthen superstition, which truly impedes the advance naturalism. In other words, vote for Obama, lessen income inequality, give everyone health care, and so on.
- Are there ways of knowing other than science? In his presentation about “scientism” on the last day—a presentation, by the way, that was admirably clear—Massimo talked about ways of knowing that come from areas other than science. I don’t recall them all, but think that they include mathematics and logic. I am open on this issue (except that I don’t thing religion and revelation are “ways of knowing”), but, sadly, we had little time to discuss these issues. I am particularly interested in whether mathematics is a way of finding out things that are true about the universe, i.e., whether math is continuous with science, and will be thinking more about that in the future. Dan recommended that I consult a philosopher of mathematics on this issue (I didn’t know such a field existed!), because it was not in his realm of expertise.
What did I change my mind about? On the morning before the last day of the conference, I wrote on this site that I didn’t think the formal philosophy of science had made any contribution to the progress of science. I now think I was wrong, because I raised that question in the meeting shortly thereafter. Folks like Janna Levin, Sean Carroll, Rebecca Goldstein, and Dan Dennett convinced me that philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics have influenced work in physics, philosophical speculations about “the arrow of time” have influenced cosmology, and philosophers like Peter Singer have inspired work on the consciousness and behavior of animals. We all agreed that most science proceeds completely independently of the work of philosophers, but, as Massimo said in his presentation, “Philosophy is not in the business of advancing science.”
Finally, some of my best intellectual times occurred on the drive to the conference with Richard Dawkins and Dan, since we had lively discussion of many things (including theology), and the drive back to Cambridge with Dan which, as I noted yesterday, helped me sharpen my thoughts on the value of morality.
It was a good time, but my brain needs to recover for a few days. Sadly, I have more theology to read.